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Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

    In any significantly big project, there are bound to be times when you lose the track of what you’re doing, when for whatever reason you stop moving forward and, what’s worse, can’t seem to find the motivation to get going again. When we “fall off the wagon” like that, a kind of psychological wall starts building up, making getting back in the swing of things seem more and more daunting. An ugly cycle develops: as the wall gets higher, we get more anxious about climbing it, which makes the wall higher still.

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    The only real solution is to do something, anything, but that’s small consolation when a project is taunting you with its unfinishedness. So here are a few little tricks to help you take a running start at that wall – you may not clear it in a single bound, but if you can just sink your toes into its cracks you might well find that climbing it wasn’t quite the chore you thought it was. And when you discover that, the wall itself often comes crumbling down before you.

    1. Take it on the road.

    A powerful approach to getting re-started is to switch up the scenery by tackling your project in a new place. If you’re sitting in your cubicle at work staring at the foam-and-fuzz walls, try taking a work-from-home day. If the butt-print in your chair has this project’s name on it, try going to a coffee shop or co-working space or even a park bench.

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    The point is, change your scenery. The mind builds powerful associations between places and certain activities – and unfortunately, being frustrated and unproductive is just as much an “activity” to the mind as being happily productive. The longer you stew in frustration at the same place, the more likely your mind is to fall into an unproductive state just by entering that space. Moving to a new site gives you a clean slate to work with, a place with no associations, and is often enough to break whatever mental block your mind is throwing in your way.

    2. Do 20 minutes.

    This is my favorite procrastination-killer: set a timer for 20 minutes and promise yourself to work until the dinger goes “ding”. This is useful for projects that aren’t beyond you creatively or conceptually but are simply too dull to look forward too, like data entry. (Or, I confess, grading exams…) But no matter how hateful the task, just about anyone can manage 20 minutes of it. And the beauty of this is, once the timer goes off, you often find that you’ve got some momentum and really just want to get the job done – which may well be far more preferable than going back to dreading and putting off the work yet again.

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    3. Limit yourself.

    This is the opposite of #2 – instead of forcing yourself to do at least a set amount of time, limit yourself to doing no more than 30 minutes, or an hour, or 4 hours, or whatever is reasonable. Set a timer and try to work, but when the timer goes off, stop. Even if you haven’t made a lick of progress. Oh, you’ll be stressed. You’ll want to sit there and stew for 30 more minutes. You’ll metaphorically rend your garments and gnash your teeth. But DO NOT DO ANY MORE WORK on that project. Force yourself to wait until tomorrow (or whenever you can schedule another block of time).

    The mind thrives on limits, though it might take some training. If you know you only have x amount of time to work on something, and if the alternative is even more frustration, the mind will adapt. By depriving yourself of time to work on your project, you’re turning it from a chore that you have to spend so much time on to something you only get to spend so much time on – you turn a punishment into a reward.

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    4. Skip the hard stuff.

    A lot of projects stop dead when we hit a point where we don’t know how to move forward. One way to get past that is to just set that sticky bit aside and proceed as if you’d figured it out. For instance, while writing a business plan, you may get hung up on income projections, with no idea how to figure that part out. Leave that bit, for now, and continue with the next part. If you need figures to work with, make them up* – you’ll replace them with more accurate figures later. I do this all the time when writing academic papers where I don’t have a reference on hand to flesh out some part; I just skip it, and if I need to refer to that part later in the paper, I put in nonsense and highlight it with the word processor’s “highlight” function so I remember where I need to make changes later. Often, the hard stuff is easier once you’ve finished the easier bits – you develop the expertise to handle parts that earlier were beyond your abilities.

    * You’d be surprised how many financial projections in business plans were made up anyway…

    5. Tend to your knitting.

    Or fly a kite. Or build a birdhouse. Draw caricatures of minor celebrities. Just drop whatever you’re working on and do something totally random, totally different, and totally non-stressful. The brain is a funny thing – it often freezes up under pressure and then, when you’re least expecting it, starts churning out solutions to whatever thorny problems are holding things up. Ironically, letting go of the problem is sometimes the only way to solve it.

    Do you have any tips for getting back into the flow of things? Let us know about them in the comments.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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